When an Egyptian delegation heads to Quito for the October 17-20 Habitat III conference—a United Nations gathering of government officials, city planners, and urbanization experts that takes place once every 20 years—perennial issues, such as the availability of affordable housing and how to deal with spreading informal communities, will be on the table. In fact, Egypt’s already-published report to the conference addresses such questions. But there is an important newer topic that might not be up for discussion: Egypt’s plans to build a new capital. The impetus to build that capital goes to the very heart of what is driving Cairo’s urban sprawl.

Any regular visitor to Cairo in the last few decades will have remarked on the proliferation of satellite communities around the city, some of them aimed at the middle class and some at more affluent Egyptians. The New Urban Communities, some named for important dates in political history (10th of Ramadan, 15th of May, 6th of October), were supposed to lessen population density and provide affordable housing. However, a report by the Tadamun urban research institute shows that even the more successful new communities (6th of October and New Cairo) have attracted only about a quarter of their targeted populations. 

At the same time informal areas—communities without any official status from the government—have proliferated and now house between 40 percent and 67 percent of Cairenes. Meanwhile, Egyptian officials speak regularly of the urgent need to build housing—for some reason, often using the magical number of one million units—and business journals are full of reports about construction-related investment opportunities.

Why the urge to build vast numbers of units, many of which go unfilled? Why not observe international best practices by providing infrastructure and services to the informal communities as well as upgrading existing housing, all with the participation of the local residents in the planning stage? The Egyptian government, according to Tadamun, persists in treating informal areas (called ashwaiaat or “random areas” in Arabic) as slums that must be cleared, despite the fact that many contain solidly-built housing and are inhabited by middle-class professionals and government workers. Yet plans proceed for the involuntary resettlement of people by the thousands and their rehousing in newly-built alternative areas.

The relentless drive to build new communities, most of them on desert land, has found its most ambitious expression to date in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s plan to build a new government center east of Cairo, which he unveiled at the 2015 Sharm al-Sheikh Economic Summit. Announced as a $45 billion project that would take five to seven years to complete, the new capital now has its own website, projecting a vast development that would include not only government offices, but business districts, energy farms, an international airport, a theme park, as well as—of course—1.1 million housing units, all in a super-modern, high rise, Emirati-style urban center completely unlike anything that exists in Egypt today. In fact, an Emirati company was originally intended to construct the city, but after one of the many misunderstandings that have plagued Sisi’s megaprojects, Egypt has now changed dance partners. China State Construction will build the first phase of the project (government buildings and conference facilities) for $2.7 billion over three years.

So, will constructing new government buildings as well as all the facilities needed to serve government workers revitalize the city, as the plans promise? American University in Cairo economist and urban planner David Sims is blunt: “Egypt needs a new capital like a hole in the head.” He sees all of the new developments around Cairo as a “huge unsustainable failures” that have eaten up vast resources and benefited only a small number of elite citizens, while millions of middle and lower class Cairenes have been left to figure life out for themselves in informal communities. 

According to architect Khaled Adham, the Egyptian government figured out decades ago that “the selling of desert land would open new avenues of profit for the government and for a new class of entrepreneurs with ties to it and to international corporations.” Creating facilities and services in the new satellite communities, while allowing services in older downtown communities to deteriorate, in effect drove wealthier Egyptians to buy into the new communities.

This tendency to plan housing and infrastructure around profits rather than the needs of citizens (or even simple market demand) has only intensified under the Sisi government, in which the military’s role in directing infrastructure projects has mushroomed. Sisi issued a decree in February 2016 giving the Armed Forces Land Projects Authority the power to form joint ventures with private companies as well as a mandate to take the lead on the new capital as on another housing project in the Cairo satellite community of Sheikh Zayed. There were attempts after the 2011 uprising to insert more citizen input into urban planning and management, but architect Kareem Ibrahim notes that they have all fizzled out. 

Presumably the Egyptian delegates at Habitat III will dutifully sign onto the New Urban Agenda to be issued at the conference, with its calls for “people-centered development” and “inclusive planning processes.” However, they are unlikely to seek any input on the advisability of building Egypt’s new capital in the desert. It is a pet project of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and, therefore, not up for debate.